SOUTH BEND — Christine Hinz had been leading Portage Manor for less than three months when she openly worried about losing her job with the county-run group home for aged adults and others with disabilities. The manor’s oversight board hired her despite her lack of licensure to lead such a site, but a state inspector soon called out the discrepancy.
A month later, Hinz would resign effective immediately with a two-sentence letter to St. Joseph County leaders. She offered no explanation for her decision. A new administrator was appointed to replace her 12 days later.
Hinz’s resignation was the second in less than a year from a role whose purpose is to oversee the care of more than 120 residents in the northwest South Bend facility that opened in 1907. Both losses come at a time when Portage Manor leaders are watching their cash reserves drain and advocating for a new building in order to avoid a full closure.
‘Bridge … to the next crisis:’:Without millions in cash, South Bend group home could close
Tension over Portage Manor’s future has been high for the past several years because the facility has bled $2 million in cash reserves since 2012. Declining revenue is mostly due to inadequate state funding and lagging enrollment of guests, leaders say.
The leader before Hinz, Robyn Challinor, told The Tribune that she resigned last September because she was fed up with the politics surrounding the 2022 budget proposal.
Hinz voiced her own concerns in May, when the board took steps to hire someone permanent who would essentially do Hinz’s job and run the facility — with the necessary license.
A reporter was unsuccessful in multiple attempts to reach Hinz for an interview. It is unclear whether her resignation was related to her concerns about her job stability.
Hinz was a leader in the county health department for nearly a decade before the Portage Manor Board of Managers appointed her to head the historic site this January. She began her role as administrator with a $95,000 salary in mid-February.
The board, composed primarily of volunteer members, agreed at the time that Hinz “kind of checked all the boxes for all the board members.”
But one missing box would prove crucial: Hinz lacked the mandatory state licensure needed to run a residential health care facility. The omission carries with it the potential for serious fines or, in the worst case scenario, a total shutdown by Indiana health officials.
Board members apparently knew this when they hired her, but were unaware how vehemently state regulators disapproved of the situation until an inspection in April, according to discussion at a May 5 meeting. They also didn’t realize it would take several months for Hinz to earn her license because of onerous job-shadowing requirements, Board Vice President Frank Fotia said.
“It was communicated to me that, basically, (state regulators) would shut us down if there was somewhere else to send these people,” said county attorney Mike Misch, formerly the president of the Portage Manor board, during the meeting. “They just don’t want to make a bunch of people homeless.”
The inspector’s report cites state code requiring the leader of a residential care facility to have either a “comprehensive care” or “residential care” administration license. Hinz told the inspector she had only a registered nursing license, but board members had known that when she was hired.
Board members declined to comment on Hinz’s resignation, citing state law that keeps most personnel matters private. A factual basis for a public employee’s termination is part of the public record if that employee was fired, but that’s not the case here, county attorney Mike Misch told The Tribune.
In what Fotia called “a bridge to keep us open so we can get to the next crisis,” the board agreed in May to pay Byron Wellness Systems, a comparable residential care facility in Fort Wayne, up to $80,500 to borrow its license-carrying CEO for less than two months. Part of the contract stipulated that the CEO, Debra Lambert, would try to permanently hire someone with a license before leaving July 1.
Half-jokingly, Hinz wondered aloud to board members whether this plan could result in her salaried role becoming redundant.
“If we don’t get a corrective action going,” board president Patty Godsey replied after an uncomfortable pause, “nobody’s gonna have a job. And our residents — half of them — are gonna be on the street.”
Four weeks later, on June 3, Hinz resigned effective that day. In her resignation letter, she thanked the Board of Managers and the St. Joseph County Commissioners, who own Portage Manor, for the opportunity.
By June 15, the board had appointed a new licensed administrator, Kortney Mullins, to lead Portage Manor, according to records provided by the Indiana Department of Health. Mullins lived in Elkhart when hired and received her license to run a residential care facility in May 2021, the records show.
The new administrator’s challenge is to lead Portage Manor through a request for county investment of at least $25 million in a new facility to replace the 1907 building, which fails to meet certain accessibility requirements under the American with Disabilities Act and has been deemed impractical to renovate.
New building:Unclear how to pay for initial $41 million plans at South Bend group home site
The Board of Managers views the new building as its last chance to prevent Portage Manor from joining the ranks of similar Indiana facilities that have closed since the Great Recession.
Portage Manor is two dozen guests shy of meeting its 144-person capacity, a fact that has worsened its financial situation along with an insufficient state funding model for group homes, the facility’s leaders say. But enrollment has increased from 116 to 123 people in the past two months, as of a Monday update.
An initial facility plan would have cost more than $40 million to execute, a price St. Joseph County leaders felt was too steep, according to Misch. An effort by MKM architecture and design, a Fort Wayne firm, to pare down the expense by millions of dollars is underway.